Transneptune Games

warm games, cold nights

Visceral Reactions and Abstract Damage

So we’ve been discussing damage in Piece of Work. In a cybernoir story, eventually someone is going to get shot, stabbed, or clubbed. Mechanically, there are a lot of options available for tracking hurt—hit points, statuses, health levels—but each has drawbacks that doesn’t deliver the effect we’re after. We want something gripping but still lightweight and story-focused.

Unfortunately, many damage systems are disconnected from the visceral thing they represent. Hit points are engaging while we mark off a few more points, but they don’t reflect the gaping wounds later in the story. We can check the box labeled Angry but that doesn’t feel like the irrational anger of a jealous lover. Health levels are flat and wide—they simultaneously say too much about a character’s capabilities and not enough about the reason they’re in the shape they’re in. They are, in short, abstract.

I think part of the problem is that these mechanics are mechanics first and descriptions second (if at all). Thing is: I never want to update my character sheet just to keep the mechanics working. I don’t want to check boxes or adjust counters for the sake of making the next combat round work or to provide the game some way of making the story “true”. The story is already true; I just want to write down what happened. And when I do that, I want it to be fun and for it to help me remember how things went down.

As a counter-example, take Ryan Macklin’s excellent hack for the Unknown Armies damage system, described here. He suggests that when recording damage, you make graphical annotations on a picture of your character’s body. I think this is a great idea for recording what happened in a fun and tangible way. It also keeps the focus on what happened in the story.

For Becoming Heroes, “damage” doesn’t work the same way as a conventional system might. Injury is just another Circumstance. If you were stabbed in the gut while defending the village against a horde of orcs, then you write down Stabbed in the Gut on your sheet. Because it’s a heroic game, this isn’t enough to keep you from doing what you need to do—and if you’re very clever, it can work for you instead of strictly being a hindrance. That works for a game of epic heroism like BH, but we need something grittier for Piece of Work.

We tried hit points at one time, health levels at another, but neither has worked. Now we’re looking at a duration-based system: a character can be either injured until the end of the scene, until the end of the session, or permanently (and possibly any combination of these). There are mechanical effects for these various injuries that interplay into the die-mechanic for the game, but I think more important is how the injuries are recorded. When one writes down an injury, it will be written down descriptively, along with the level of injury. That is, in addition to being “injured for the scene,” one would write down Roughed Up By Mobsters. In addition to being “injured for the session,” one would write down Rib Broken By Jump From Train.

When I look out across games as a whole, I see a lot of interesting ideas regarding the mechanics of injury, but few that include context with that information. For me, context is the more important piece. It bridges the gap between sessions. It focuses attention on the events of the story. It serves as a cue for new actions. While creating a system for injury that acknowledges context has been (and I think is always) hard, it’s effort that really improves a game.